Canadian field workers adjust to a new world of work

How employees in non-office settings are adapting to pandemic-related changes in industries like energy, utilities, retail, manufacturing, education, government and more

At a glance

More than half of field staff weren’t using technology very much or at all both before the pandemic and now during the pandemic. Those exposed to digital upskilling opportunities are more likely to use technology and see its potential.

The pandemic has taken a toll on field workers’ well-being—worksite safety and burnout are top concerns, especially for women and in high-demand sectors

Real estate, energy and health care were the sectors quickest to adapt to the disruption. Effective leadership and digital upskilling are key to building business resilience.


The pandemic has transformed how we work, not just in the office, but also in the field—for front-line and essential workers and those required to be on the job site to get work done. And while everyone is eager for life to get back to normal, that doesn’t necessarily mean going back to the way we did things before.

Our Canadian field worker study* (conducted February 11 to 17, 2021) takes the pulse of Canadian field workers—full or part-time employees who pre-pandemic spent most if not all of their workday in a non-office setting and are employed by a larger company or organization. The survey reveals their perceptions of the potential for technology to improve their job, the impact of the pandemic on their well-being and their organization’s effectiveness in adapting to the disruption.

As vaccination campaigns gain momentum and businesses ramp up, how can you best empower your field staff to work confidently and effectively in this new era?

Untapped potential in technology and upskilling

A majority of field workers think they have the tools and technology they need to do their jobs. But most weren't using technology very much or at all both before (58%) and during (53%) the pandemic. And when asked if technology has helped them work differently since COVID-19, the majority of respondents (52%) said no.

Have technologies helped you to work differently since the pandemic?

No impact (the amount of tech I use and how I use it didn’t change)
Technology has enabled me to replicate the same work remotely (e.g. in-person meeting vs a zoom meeting)
Technology has somewhat changed the work I do
Technology has fundamentally changed the work I do

These stats highlight how little technology is being incorporated into the daily routines of non-office employees. Although many of our respondents work in industries where they need to be on the job site, there’s a lot of potential for tech-enabled improvements in operations, efficiency, communication, safety and customer experience. Field workers seem to agree—just over half say they see potential for technology to improve aspects of their job. Two in five (38%) say technology could bring moderate or significant improvements, driven by employees in health care, education and retail.

Among field staff exposed to digital learning opportunities, this view jumps to 62%—but only 49% of field workers have been given upskilling opportunities. This is in contrast to our first workforce survey, where two-thirds of office employees (67%) say they were given upskilling opportunities.


of field workers say there are aspects of their job that could be improved by using technology

The digital divide

Are certain non-office workers being forgotten in the new world of work? Organizations must think of their entire workforce if they want to reap the benefits of upskilling and technology. Mirroring results of our previous survey, field workers given opportunities to develop their digital knowledge and skills have a more positive view of leadership, are more likely to have the tools they need to do their jobs and are more likely to do more of their job digitally—both before and during the pandemic.

✔ Be bold and challenge old ways

Technology and upskilling can bring efficiencies that result in cost savings, improved operations and enhanced customer experience. And digital applications go far beyond automating manual tasks. Some examples of technologies already being used by field staff include:

  • Sales teams using the cloud to connect field employees to the most current information, data and analytics. 

  • Energy and utility companies are flying drones to inspect assets in hard-to-reach or dangerous locations. 

  • In education, interactive digital tools are opening doors to entirely new learning experiences.

✔ Reinvent the career path

We need to start seeing non-linear career paths, where skills can transfer over to newer roles. For example, from a mechanical engineer to a data scientist. COVID-19 has shuffled the deck completely in terms of supply and demand for skill sets and roles. Are you recognizing these skill-based connections at your organization, or seeing talented professionals leave whom you may want to keep? How can you use RPA and AI to assist in career mapping and direct talent in a strategic way?

✔ Optimize performance

Take your best operator, learn from their routines and tool usage and enable all operators to perform at the same level.

Support well-being by addressing employee needs

The pandemic has caused a substantial drop in field workers’ well-being on the job. Nearly four in five described their well-being as “good” before COVID-19, compared to fewer than three in five during the pandemic. This shift is also most notable among Atlantic Canadians, those in the education industry and female workers under the age of 55.

Health and safety on the job site (40%) and burnout from the increased demand for employees’ services or products (39%) are the biggest challenges. What’s more, those who identify as women are disproportionately affected by these impacts: in addition to being significantly more likely to report major disruption to their jobs, they are more concerned about health and safety on the worksite (49% versus 33% of males) as well as burnout (53% versus 29% of males). From a regional perspective, Albertans are less concerned about health and safety on the job site than others in Canada.

Field workers who rated their well-being good or very good

Top 3 challenges in each industry

% who selected ‘most concerned’ and ‘concerned’ about each challenge

✔ Think differently about people’s needs

Organizations most likely to succeed are those that think differently about evolving employee needs and how to increase employee engagement. How can you prioritize your people’s well-being and help them thrive in this new world of work? Are your leaders aligned and equipped to support them? How can you protect your people and avoid employee burnout? Could you be doing more to support gender diversity and inclusion, by considering the needs of women or other specific groups?

✔ Keep an eye on well-being

To support your people’s well-being, it’s important to review and evaluate your current programming and make sure your leadership and supervisors are on-board. Train your teams and leaders on how to recognize well-being issues and spot red flags. This is a relatively new skill, and it needs to be learned and practised on an on-going basis.

Strong leadership builds resilience

Just over half of Canadian field workers reported a high level of disruption at their organization due to COVID-19, with those in Atlantic Canada feeling it the most. But two-thirds (64%) of organizations were able to adapt to the new reality within two months. Real estate/construction, energy/utilities, health care and retail were the quickest sectors to pivot. The most disrupted sectors—education and government—were among the slowest to adjust. 

Most field workers continue to rate their organization’s leadership as effective, despite a small decline in perceptions of effectiveness from 86% pre-pandemic to 81% during. The decline was most pronounced in the government, education and retail sectors.

We see that good leadership has a positive impact on organizations’ ability to adapt quickly, employee well-being, perceptions of health and safety, and employees’ ability to do their jobs effectively. In fact, nearly half of those who say their leadership was very effective were able to immediately adapt to disruption caused by the pandemic. Businesses that adapted quickly also tend to be more digitally progressive, such as giving employees upskilling opportunities and incorporating technology into their work.

Have you asked yourself the following questions:

  • How are you fostering leadership within your organization?
  • As the pandemic evolves, how are leaders making people feel included and fostering a safe environment in the face of so many unknowns?

  • Are your leaders transparent and helping build a culture of trust?

  • How are you measuring leadership effectiveness?

  • How much disruption has your organization faced since the onset
  • How quickly did your organization adapt to the disruption caused

% reporting a ‘significant amount’ of disruption compared to % who said their organization ‘adapted within two months’

  • During Pandemic
  • Pre-Pandemic

% effective (very and somewhat)

Police and public safety was the only industry where perceptions on leadership effectiveness actually increased after the onset of the pandemic.

Effective leadership builds resilience

Field workers who rated their leadership very effective saw the benefits of:

The benefits of effective leadership

National average
Respondents who rated their leadership very effective
Adapted immediately
Had the necessary tools and tech
Very confident in safety
Well-being rated very good / good pre-COVID-19
Well-being rated very good/good now
Confident in customer experience

✔ Take leadership beyond the boardroom

Everyone has a role to play, and leaders working in the field must be included. With the added stress of the pandemic, some workers may not be able to handle as much as they used to. Leaders should take it upon themselves to remove barriers to success, including providing access to tools and technology, resolving toxic cultures, inhibiting certain behaviours, improving processes and bringing clarity to roles.

✔ Empower leaders to focus on strategy

Investing in technologies and providing your front-line leaders and supervisors with upskilling opportunities will free up their time from manual or repetitive tasks—get rid of the paper and extract the benefits from the Internet of Things. Direct this unloaded capacity toward more strategic activity.

Questions to consider:

How can technology and upskilling better enable your field staff?

How are you prioritizing employee well-being and how have your HR policies changed to reflect new working conditions?

How are you developing your leaders?

Prepare for the future of work now 

COVID-19 has only accelerated the pace of change for how we work and conduct business in Canada. Organizations must ensure they have the necessary tools, workforce structure and skills in place to be successful in the increasingly digital future. 

At PwC we can help you form a workforce strategy, upskill your people, reimagine your workplace and transform your HR function to meet the evolving needs of your organization.  

Contact us to learn how

*About our Canadian field worker study: This poll was conducted by the Angus Reid Group from February 11 to 17, 2021, to understand Canadian field workers’ perceptions of work productivity and effectiveness during the COVID-19 pandemic. The poll was conducted using a nationally representative sample of 1,001 Canadian field workers, defined as full time or part-time employees who spend most if not all of their workday in a non-office setting and are employed by a larger company or organization. Examples may include oil drillers, retail workers, municipal service workers, telecom technicians, factory workers, rail conductors, health care workers, teachers, etc.

Jean McClellan

National Workforce Platform and Consulting Strategy Leader, Calgary, PwC Canada

(403) 629 8330


Jennifer Melnyk

Practice Leader, HR Transformation Consulting, Calgary, PwC Canada

+1 403 923 4332


Matt Pittman

Partner, HR Transformation, Toronto, PwC Canada

+1 416 815 5008


Baya Benouniche

M.S. Partner and Leader of the Consulting Group for Quebec, Montreal, PwC Canada

+1 514 205 5409


Kathy Parker

Partner, National Workforce of the Future Consulting Leader, Toronto, PwC Canada

+1 416 419 9731